How to pack for carry-on

Alesha and Jarryd are professional photographers, writers and the founders of Australia’s biggest adventure travel blog, NOMADasaurus. They’ve been exploring the world together since 2008, searching for culture and adventure in off the beaten path destinations.


Need to take your travel adventures to the next level? De-stress, avoid extra luggage fees and feel super organised by planning ahead and packing strategically with our shrewd carry-on hacks.

Consider just taking a carry-on pack and you’ll skip the queue at the baggage carousel, be one of the first to grab a taxi and know your luggage is with you at all times. There’s nothing more frustrating than arriving in a new destination to discover the airline has lost your luggage.

Choose the right bag

Airlines are getting stricter with weight and dimension limits for overhead luggage, so be sure to select the right bag.

Your carry-on pack needs to be more than just a certain size. It also has to:

  • Make your packing life simple
  • Be easy to carry or wheel
  • Have multiple internal compartments for organising your gear
  • Be durable enough to withstand inflight rigours

A bag made of softer materials can mould its way into tight spaces and compress down if you still have some room available. It should also be generally lighter so that more of your carry-on pack weight can come from items inside it.

An image of a woman waiting for her transport with her carry-on pack
Investing in a compact, carry-on pack will be the best travel decision you make

Make a detailed packing list

A list can help keep you on the right track so you’re only taking what you really need in your carry-on. It will also ensure you don’t forget anything.

Write absolutely everything you think you’ll need on your list, such as:

  • Clothing – if your list states three tees, then only pack three
  • Toiletries – keep these minimal
  • Electronics – small and packable is best
  • Medications – can you store them without their excessive packaging

Take quick-drying, adaptable clothing

Adaptable clothing that you can layer is the key to packing for carry-on only. Take a few high-quality items of clothing that serve multiple purposes rather than lots of single-use, cheap bits of clothing. Not only is this better for the environment, it’s better for your packing list and budget.

If you’re going to be mixing outdoor activities with city-sightseeing, take hiking pants that also look quite smart for day-to-day wear. Rather than taking a very thick winter coat, take a lightweight, waterproof shell that you can use in bad weather, no matter what the temperature.

Likewise, choose clothing with quick-drying materials. You’ll be able to hang it overnight if it’s wet, and expect it to be dry by morning.

Limit your pairs of shoes

Choosing which shoes to take can be a challenge. Consider the activities you plan on doing over your travels and take a pair for:

  • All occasions – simple and versatile for urban exploring, dinners out and whatever else your travels might throw at you
  • Hiking – rugged and waterproof for the outdoors yet also stylish enough to wear out to a bar
  • Casual activities – lightweight sandals that suit the beach, river activities and hot days

Remember to wear your heaviest shoes on the plane and when packing for carry-on only, strap your pair of sandals to the outside of your bag.

An image of a pair of casual travel shoes An image of a pair of casual travel shoes
Casual travel shoes that also suit light hikes are golden

Embrace the power of packing cells

Digging deep into your pack for that elusive item can be a real travel frustration. A brilliant solution involves separating your gear into packing cells.

You’ll be able to access all your gear when you needed, a lot easier. No more digging to the bottom of your bag trying to find a pair of socks – just grab the packing cell with all your underwear in it!

For carry on, it’ll be simpler to compartmentalise your gear. Plus, when airport security want to look inside your bag, you won’t need to pull out every item.

Avoid ‘just in case’ packing

Do you really need that second fleece? Research the places you’re going, the dress style the locals wear and the weather you can expect.

For instance, there’s no point taking a heavy, bulky snow jacket if there aren’t any freezing temperatures in the forecast.

The fewer clothes you take, the easier it’ll be to stay within airline carry-on limits. And if you desperately need a clothing item when you get there, you can always shop locally and contribute to local businesses.

Keep toiletries to a minimum

Fitting in toiletries packing for carry-on only can be a common problem. Here are a few tips from us:

  • Choose a lightweight electric shaver or just go grizzly – razors can be confiscated
  • Go with only one travel-size mascara, lipstick and blush

Remember, airlines will seize all liquids over 100 ml. Roll with small tubes of toothpaste and hand sanitiser to get you by – then stock up on arrival.

Find the ideal sized toiletry bag for your carry-on pack.

An image of two people walking through an airport departure lounge
Spend plenty of time packing your carry-on and check-in packs - and you'll be more relaxed in transit

Reduce devices and cables

The weight of your luggage can really be bulked up by too many electronics. An obvious no-no (unless you’re working while travelling) is taking a heavy, bulky laptop – your mobile or tablet will do the same job.

Leave your Kindle or media device at home, and store any movies or e-books on your phone.

If you’re into SLR photography, your mobile probably won’t be an acceptable substitute. But you can still reduce weight by leaving the tripod at home, taking only one large range lens and keeping cables to a minimum.

Otherwise, rely solely on your mobile phone for your travel photography.

Wear your bulky items inflight

The last tip for how to pack for carry on only is to wear your big, heavy items when you go through the airport. Some airlines are notorious for charging for even being half a kilogram over, so before you drop the bag on the scales, throw on the things that may push you over.

Shoes, pants, a heavy jumper: all of these can be worn when doing the check-in, then repacked into your bag once you get through security. Don’t get caught out!

Find a carry-on pack

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